With the franchise tag window closed and the legal tampering window not yet open, now is the perfect time to take a realistic look at free agent options and do some window shopping for the Titans. Yes, we will still see some of these players agree to terms with their original teams between now and March 11th, but the vast majority of them are going to hit the market.
The franchise tag cleared Robbie Gould (49ers), Jadeveon Clowney (Texans), Grady Jarrett (Falcons), Frank Clark (Seahawks), DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys), and Dee Ford (Chiefs) off the board which really shrinks the talent pool at one of the Titans biggest positions of need. Things went the opposite direction at another need position though as the Giants chose not to use the tag on safety Landon Collins while the Ravens shockingly released six time Pro Bowler Eric Weddle creating a glut of available talent in the back of the secondary.
The Titans really have five glaring positions of need as things stand today: edge rusher, interior offensive line, wide receiver, safety, and defensive line (roughly in that order in my opinion). They will likely attempt to address most of those spots in some capacity in free agency so they can head into the draft with some flexibility.
The Titans have approximately $45M in cap space to work with this offseason after cutting Johnathan Cyprien, but they will probably be leaving aside some money for a big contract extension that is due for Kevin Byard. If recent trends hold, I would expect KB’s new deal to be finalized some time around the start of training camp. He is likely to get something north of $12M per year as one of the best safeties in the NFL and a growing leader in the Titans locker room. However, Jon Robinson still has plenty of cash available to take at least one or two big swings if he wants to. I just wouldn’t expect big name additions in all five of these spots. Some of these positions are likely to go either unaddressed or get more of a role player added to fill the gap. Fortunately, it’s not a requirement for all 11 starters on both sides of the ball to be All-Pros to have a winning team.
How the team approaches free agency will likely give us more clues about where they might go early in the draft as well. Here are some of the top potential free agent additions available at each position of need for the Titans.
Current Titans Depth: Harold Landry (22), Sharif Finch (23), Kamalei Correa (24), Gimel President (25), Nigel Harris (24)
Top Tier: Preston Smith (26), Trey Flowers (25), Anthony Barr (26)
Mid Tier: Terrell Suggs (36), Za’Darius Smith (27), Ziggy Ansah (29), Dante Fowler Jr. (24), Cameron Wake (37)
Possible Bargains: Shane Ray (25), Shaquil Barrett (26), Clay Matthews (32), Benson Mayowa (27), Markus Golden (27), Derrick Morgan (30)
I won’t dive too deep into this group here since I already covered it in depth here, but I think this is a solid-but-unspectacular group of edge rushers. There are several solid plug and play starters available like Trey Flowers and Preston Smith who would almost certainly step in and give the Titans a quality starter opposite Harold Landry for the next few years. There are also some older vets who still have some juice left in Terrell Suggs and Cameron Wake that could be useful if the Titans wanted to pair them with a relatively high draft pick. There are also some very risky players with high upside like Anthony Barr and Dante Fowler.
The prices for these guys could be all over the board too. My guess is that Flowers — largely considered the best player available in this group — will command somewhere close to $16M or $17M per year while the others track fairly close behind. Every NFL team could use more pass rushers so expect the competition to be fierce for the top of the market.
I should touch on the Chiefs situation here though because they really will end up having a big impact on this market. Reports out of Kansas City are that long time star pass rusher Justin Houston will be released soon.
Other reports make it sound like the Chiefs are still trying to see if they can trade him, but the sense from everyone is that he is on his way out one way or another. I absolutely love the fit of Justin Houston with the Titans. The guy has been among the most consistent elite performers in the NFL over the past eight seasons and he still has some juice left. He racked up nine sacks in 2018 and once again finished as one of PFF’s most efficient pass rushers despite playing just 12 games due to a hamstring injury. Yes, he’s 30 years old and decline is certainly coming, but if the Titans can get one or two more seasons out of him that are on par with his 2018, he will be well worth the money he’ll command.
The Chiefs are also reportedly open to the idea of trading Dee Ford after giving him the franchise tag yesterday.
From @gmfb: The #Chiefs are open to trading pass-rusher Dee Ford, with the thought being that he's a better 3-4 fit. If no trade, they'll be happy to keep him for another season. pic.twitter.com/1rzy0dylQ3— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 5, 2019
Rapaport suggests an asking price of a second round pick which makes the overall cost pretty steep when you consider that his new team would then have to give him a big, new contract AND lose a cheap potential starter that that the second round pick represents. However, Ford is just 27 years old and has 25 sacks in his last 31 games so I can certainly understand why a team might be willing to pay that ransom
I would expect the Titans to be squarely in the mix in this market via either trade or signing. The team is extraordinarily young here so a veteran with some experience makes a lot of sense. Plus, it’s looking more and more like the odds of one of the top five edge rushers in the draft class — Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, Clelin Ferrell, Montez Sweat, and Brian Burns — falling to the Titans at 19 are pretty slim. Trading up in the first round again is almost out of the question this year given the small draft class of 2018 so free agency may be Jon Robinson’s best hope of adding an impact pass rusher to this team.
Interior Offensive Line
Current Titans Depth: Ben Jones (29), Josh Kline (29), Corey Levin (24), Aaron Stinnie (25), Hroniss Grasu (27), Jamil Douglas (27)
Top Tier: Rodger Saffold (30), Matt Paradis (29), Mitch Morse (26), Ramon Foster (33)
Mid Tier: Quinton Spain (27), D.J. Fluker (27), John Sullivan (33), Jamon Brown (25)
Possible Bargains: James Carpenter (29), Andy Levitre (32), Kevin Pamphile (28)
The interior offensive line market is pretty weak this season. That’s mostly due to the fact that there just aren’t very many good offensive linemen in the NFL right now. Teams that have them very rarely let them go.
That being said, there are a few legitimate upgrades that look like they might hit the market next week. Rodger Saffold and Matt Paradis are pretty comfortably the best guard and center fits, respectively, for the the Titans out of this group. Saffold has spent his entire career with the Rams and with the news yesterday that LA has released center John Sullivan, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are clearing room for an extension for Saffold who has been one of their best players on offense the last couple seasons.
Speaking of Sullivan, his release makes him suddenly available and his background would seemingly make him an interesting fit for the Titans. However, his play tailed off significantly last season and with his 34th birthday coming up before the 2019 season starts, I would say it’s very likely that we’ve seen the last of him as a high level starter. I would pass here if I was the Titans.
The top two centers on the market both seem likely to get a chance to test free agency. Matt Paradis and Mitch Morse should get large contracts worth north of $8M per year given how desperate NFL teams are for offensive line help. Both players do come with some risk though. Paradis suffered a nasty broken fibula last November and while he should be ready for training camp, it remains to be seen if he will be the same player he was pre-injury. Morse doesn’t have an injury that will carry over into the offseason, but he has struggled with injuries previously, playing in just 20 of a possible 35 games in 2017 and 2018 thanks primarily to foot and concussion issues. Both of those are alarming for an offensive lineman.
At guard, Ramon Foster is the other premium asset that could be available. He’s on the older side at 33, but he’s still playing at a high level. Foster is from Tennessee, went to the University of Tennessee, and spends his offseasons in Nashville so it’s not crazy to think that he might be an option to fill Quinton Spain’s left guard spot. Foster isn’t a perfect fit for the Titans outside zone heavy scheme — assuming Arthur Smith continues to lean on that run as a foundation as his predecessor did — but he is an outstanding pass blocker.
Another guy to keep an eye on is Jamon Brown. The Titans put in a waiver claim for him when he was released mid-season by the Rams in 2018, but were behind the Giants in the claim order (h/t ExoticSmash for reminding me of that). At just 25 years old with 38 starts already under his belt, he could be an option at one of the guard spots. I would expect the Packers to be in the mix for Brown as well given LaFleur’s experience with him in LA was likely what put the big guard on Jon Robinson’s radar to begin with.
Ultimately, the Titans might be best served to bring back Quinton Spain here unless they can coax Saffold out of LA or bring in a Jamon Brown for a reasonable contract. Spain has played pretty well and offers the Titans continuity which can help make the zone blocking scheme continue to click as it did late last season. Spain’s market will be fascinating to watch. I expected him to draw a lot more interest as a restricted free agent with a first right of refusal tender last offseason, but that big multi-year offer never came. Will that be the case again this season or will a weak free agent class raise his value? The answer to that question may determine whether Spain remains a Titan.
Current Titans Depth: Corey Davis (24), Taywan Taylor (24), Tajae Sharpe (24), Cameron Batson (23), Darius Jennings (26), Devin Ross (23), Roger Lewis (25), Kalif Raymond (24)
Top Tier: Golden Tate (30), Jamison Crowder (25), Adam Humphries (25), Tyrell Williams (27)
Mid Tier: John Brown (28), Devin Funchess (24), Randall Cobb (28), Chris Hogan (30), Jermaine Kearse (29)
Possible Bargains: Pierre Garcon (32), Dontrelle Inman (30), Breshad Perriman (25), Donte Moncrief (25), Cole Beasley (29)
Like edge rusher, the Titans really could use some veteran help in the receiver room in 2019. Rishard Matthews was supposed to be that guy, but we all know how that ended. Unfortunately, the free agent crop at this position is less than inspiring and if you look at some of the contracts that were doled out to pass catchers last offseason, I would expect to have to dramatically overpay to land one of the players in the top tier. That is likely at least part of the reason that Jon Robinson has reportedly been sniffing around Antonio Brown the last couple weeks.
Tate is pretty clearly the prize of this class and with his Nashville roots will lead to some easy-to-connect dots with the Titans. Obviously, this would be a great addition for Tennessee, but I’m not sure it makes sense from Tate’s end of things. He will have plenty of options in the market and almost all of them will be with more explosive passing offenses.
That factor will come into play with Tate, but other, less accomplished receivers may see the Titans as an opportunity to be higher on the target pecking order than they would be in other destinations. My favorite options out of the receiver group are Crowder, Humphries, Cobb, and Beasley in that order. Tennessee could really use a reliable slot receiver that would operate in the middle of the field where Marcus Mariota loves to work. The price for Humphries sounds like it is going to be quite high.
Hearing some of the leading slot receivers in this year’s free agent class (Golden Tate, Adam Humphries) are asking for $10 to $14 million a year on the open market, per league sources— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) March 1, 2019
If the Titans could land Crowder for slightly less than that, it would be a home run in my opinion. Cobb and Beasley likely come in quite a bit cheaper due to age, but could be good lower cost backup plans if they strike out on some of the top options.
Assuming the Titans don’t land AB, I wouldn’t be opposed to overpaying a guy like Crowder or Humphries — or Tate if he’s interested — to make sure that they land another weapon to complement Corey Davis. The wide receiver draft class looks fantastic, but the Titans need help at wide receiver now.
Current Titans Depth: Kevin Byard (25), Dane Cruikshank (23), Damon Webb (23)
Top Tier: Earl Thomas (29), Landon Collins (25), Adrian Amos (25)
Mid Tier: Tyrann Mathieu (26), Eric Weddle (34), Kenny Vaccaro (28), Lamarcus Joyner (28), HaHa Clinton-Dix (26), Tre Boston (26), George Iloka (28), Clayton Geathers (26),
Possible Bargains: Johnathan Cyprien (28), Adrian Phillips (26)
The Titans chose to move on from safety Johnathan Cyprien recently and Kenny Vaccaro is among the players set to hit the market if he and the team can’t reach agreement on a contract extension prior to March 13th. That means Jon Robinson will be looking to sign a starting safety to play opposite Kevin Byard within the next couple weeks.
Vaccaro would be my preference despite some of the other starry names on the market. We know that he fits well next to Byard and he was a big part of the success of the Titans defense last season. However, this is a fantastic group of safeties so the team will have plenty of opportunity to add a quality player here.
I would not expect them to be in the market for the top tier guys like Thomas, Collins, or Amos though. With Kevin Byard due a massive extension, the Titans probably aren’t going to want to hand out $25M per year worth of safety contracts in the same offseason. Instead, I would look for them to target someone from the middle tier.
Weddle has a great relationship off the field with Byard and obviously has connections with Dean Pees as well so he could make some sense, especially if the Titans think Cruikshank could develop into a more long term solution.
My guess is that the Titans get something done with Vaccaro though. He wants to be here and the Titans seem to want him here. I think that’s the best case scenario.
Current Titans Depth: Jurrell Casey (29), DaQuan Jones (27), Austin Johnson (24), Darius Kilgo (27), Matt Dickerson (23), Dee Liner (25)
Top Tier: Ndamukong Suh (32), Sheldon Richardson (28)
Mid Tier: Henry Anderson (27), Darius Philon (25), Brent Urban (27), Muhammad Wilkerson (29), Timmy Jernigan (26)
Possible Bargains: Christian Covington (25), Rodney Gunter (27), Johnathan Hankins (26), Mike Pennel (27), Danny Shelton (25)
Finally, we have the defensive line where the Titans are in decent shape, but could certainly use some depth out of free agency. Last year, Jon Robinson aggressively pursued Ndamukong Suh after he was released by Miami, ultimately losing out to the Rams. After a solid season in LA, it sounds like the Rams are planning to let Suh test the market.
Would Jon Robinson be interested again? I would imagine so. After all, nothing about the 2018 season should have significantly changed his opinion of either Suh or his own defensive linemen.
Outside of Suh, most of the other options on the market profile as depth more than difference makers. My favorite of the next tier is Henry Anderson from the Jets. At 6’-6” and 300 pounds, Anderson would add some much needed length to the Titans front. He also ranked as a top ten interior pass rusher in 2018 per PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity metric.
The Titans could decide to go the other direction and sign more of a true nose tackle in free agency — something they’ve tried to do with little success the last two years — like Danny Shelton or Johnathan Hankins. Those guys don’t really do much for the pass rush though — which is what the team really needs — but it could free up Jones and Johnson to play more 3-tech and 5-tech instead of shoehorning one of them into the nose spot.